Poor Cow

poor cowPoor Cow, by Nell Dunn, was one of those iconic ‘social reality’ books of the 1960s. Published in 1967, it passed me by at the time (I was probably too young), but later I remember seeing the film, starring Terence Stamp and Carol White. It was controversial, presenting a picture of East End life that many people didn’t know existed – it was more than 20 years since the war had ended, and 10 years since Harold Macmillan’s famous ‘we have never had it so good’ speech, so there was an assumption that ‘homes for heroes’ had been built and a new social order established. But Dunn revealed the world of the urban poor, with bad housing, inadequate education, ill-paid jobs and little opportunity for improvement, and I think this book still has relevance today, when the gulf between rich and poor seems greater than ever. But it’s not overtly political, and Dunn doesn’t judge or campaign. Dunn simply presents a slice of life, telling it like it is.

At the novel’s heart is Joy, 22 years old, with a baby son (Jonny), and a husband who is a thief. We see the world from her perspective – her thoughts, her dreams, her relationships, her friends, her jobs. She is, as Margaret Drabble points out in the introduction to my 1988 Virago edition, both immoral and amoral; but she’s also warm, loving, passionate and gutsy, getting by as best she can, just like everyone else, seizing life with both hands and embracing what fate offers, whether it’s good or bad. She’s a curious mix of street wise and innocent, but she makes her own decisions about her life, refusing to see herself as a victim and, since she never stops to think, the story has a vibrancy and immediacy.

Carol White and Terence Stamp in the film version of Poor Cow.

“I’ve always been a daydreamer, me Joy – Joysy as my Auntie calls me, Daydreamed about – oh, loads of things – just to have something, to be something. I don’t want to be down and out all the time,” Joy tells us, which is kind of sad because you just know it’s never, ever going to happen. For a short time things start to look up and the couple get a luxury flat in Ruislip, financed by Tom’s ill-gotten gains. Joy doesn’t have a very high opinion of Ruislip. “The world was our oyster and we chose Ruislip,” she says. But they don’t stay long because he’s sent to prison and Joy moves in with her Auntie Emm, who lives in one room, ‘off National Assistance and pills’.

Then she gets together with Tom’s mate Dave, who is quite nice, but a bit dopey, and a very inept buglar. He arrives home one night with pockets full of necklaces, and relates how the ‘old girl’ wasn’t away after all, so was locked in the toilet while he and his friends took her jewellery. “I gave her a glass of water when we finished,” he tells Joy (but omits to say that one of them hit her over the head). The police are hard on his heels, and as they hammer on the door he tries to climb out of the window – until Joy begs him not to leave, at which point he returns and lets them in!

Soon Joy’s back with Antie Emm, working as a barmaid, doing some nude modelling (for £2 an hour, which seems like a fortune), and having lots of sex – she says she was never bothered before, but now she takes her pleasures when and where she can. and is hard-headed enough to get what she can out of the encounters, but she has her standards, and refuses to prostitute herself, maintaining that ‘you lose the pleasure of it if you turn professional’. She also writes long, ill-spelt letters to Dave, vowing eternal love, promising to wait for him, and giving him an (edited) acount of her life. Eventually Tom is released from jail and she resumes her wifely duties, and although he doesn’t seem to appreciate her efforts she remains optimistic about the future:

“Then sometimes, when he’s home, he’s good to me, that’s another thing. If he were rotten all the time I could go but sometimes for a week at a time he’s all over me. I can’t do no wromg – I’m a smashing wife – he even lets me wear me pony tail – and I feel a proper mum, I feel great. I go up the park with Jonny and buy daffodils for the table and put a red tulip in the toilet to make it smell nice and the place looks smashing and we’re happy again.”

The one constant in her life seems to be her fiercely protective love for her son (although I’m not sure she would be regarded as a good mother by today’s standards) and it’s hard to think of a similar lterary heroine – the nearest equivalent might be Babe Gordon in Mae West’s The Constant Sinner. But Joy is warm-hearted and much more human – basically, she just wants someone to love her. And Dunn is a better writer. Oddly, her writing probably has more in common with Virginia Woolf than Mae West: the life she portrays is a world away from the rarified atmosphere of Woolf’s world, with its well educated, well-heeled characters, but Poor Cow is written in a kind of up-dated stream of consciousness, using colloquial language. It moves between the author’s words, to Joy’s thoughts and her ill-written letters to her jailed lover Dave (her spelling is idiosynccratic), but it is always about her or from her point view, creating a very personal picture of a of a poor, ill-educated working class girl. According to Drabble the ‘elegance’ of the prose ‘conceals the craft’ but I don’t think elegance is the right word at all. Woolf may be elegant, Dunn is not. But there’s a freshness to the writing and the novel, which moves from episode to episode in an almost picaresque fashion, is actually quite tightly structured.

Dunn came from a ‘good’ background, but lived in Battersea, worked in local sweet factory for a time, and listened to local women talking about their lives. This, presumably, provided material for Poor Cow, and Up The Junction. Today she seems to be somewhat forgotten, but she deserves to be remembered as a pioneering author. She was one of the first novelists (male or female) to write a grittily realistic novel about working-class women in the 20th century, showing their relationships and sexual desires while exposing social issues.

This has been languishing among the TBRs for ages, and I thought it would make a nice start to the The Official 2018 TBR Pile Challenge, hosted by https://roofbeamreader.com/2017/11/07/announcing-the-official-2018-tbr-pile-challenge/ but I forgot to sign up while I was ill. So I;m having my own unofficial TBR Pile Challenge!


The Innocents

the-innocents-margery-sharp-001I have, as they say, been somewhat in the wars in recent weeks. First there was a bad tooth which got infected and the infection spread into my jaw and throat, then there was the lurgy (a bad cough and cold which wouldn’t clear up), then I slipped on an icy step, landed face down on concrete paving slabs, and ended up in casualty having a CT scan to check everything was OK. Fortunately there’s no serious injury, just severe bruising and a lot of pain, but I feel a little sorry for myself!

Anyway, today is Margery Sharp Day, the first anniversary in a year-long Birthday Book of Under-Appreciated Lady Authors being run by Jane over at Beyond Eden Rock. So I’m posting a hastily scrawled piece about The Innocents, which I have read before, but never written about. However, it’s well worth reading again. On the face of it, it’s a simple tale, but there’s a darker edge to this than some of Sharp’s other work, and the ambiguous ending leaves you wondering about the nature of innocence, and whether a bad act committed for a greater good can ever be sanctioned.

Telling us about the child, the narrator says: “I have spoken of her, describing our first encounter, as a baby. Antoinette was in fact three. At three, she should have been able to untie my shoe-laces quite easily. She should have not only uttered, but prattled. At three Antoinette had still no more language than – a baby.”

And she is as clumsy as baby, easily frightened, and when she is scared she is sick. But gradually Antoinette comes to trust her elderly carer, a relationship develops between the two of them, and the child is accepted by villagers who ‘do not blame her for being an innocent’. “Spoken to always quietly and slowly, Antoinette understood perfectly. All that was needed was patience,” says the unnamed narrator (I’m sure her name is never mentioned – if it is, I missed it). Later she tells us: “Antoinette slowly but surely developed from a small animal into a small child.”

However, that is all she will ever be – a small child. And a very odd small child at that. She spurns toys and games for things like rabbit droppings, and frogs and toads (alive and dead) and although she acquires some language (tureen, vermin, rucksack, pepper) she cannot communicate. The local doctor says she is retarded (a commonly used word when the book wa written in 1971), not autistic, and she needs lots of TLC – and that’s just what she gets with her aging protector. For the spinster, who has little or no experience of children, accepts Antoinette as she is and has no unrealistic expectations or ambitions for her. She loves the little girl, wants her to be happy, and is willing to let her set the pace.

But their idyll is threatened when the war ends and Cecilia, now widowed, returns to England. She aims to take’Tony’ back to America, and employ an army of specialists to turn her into a normal child – a transformation that, as everyone else realises, is simply not possible.

Antoinette is uprooted from her usual routine and environment to stay with Cecilia at the local hotel. Unable to understand what is happening she loses her joy in life, and retreats into dejected, passive acceptance. And as the day of leaving draws closer the narrator becomes more and more concerned that the future being mapped out for Antoinette is not in the child’s best interests, but there is nothing she can do to prevent it… Then, at the 11th hour fate steps in – or, possibly, is nudged in the right direction…

Margery Sharp

I loved this. It’s warm and sensitively written, hitting a balance between light-hearted humour, serious issues, and ethical dilemmas, while exploring the problems involved in caring for a child with special needs, a topic that still tends to be overlooked. Additionally, the characterisation is excellent Margery Sharp can establish a personality in very few words, and builds on the picture as the story progresses, with a word here, and a hint there, until the complete person emerges. Margery Sharp is also very good on descriptions, giving a real sense of place so you can build a picture of the locations, as well as the people.


We Have Always Lived in the Castle

51CoOZaAJML._SX340_BO1,204,203,200_This is another of those ‘the ones that got away’ posts’ This time I’m catching up Shirley Jackson’s We Have Always Lived in the Castle, which I raved about here when I was halfway through, because I was so surprised to discover how brilliant she is, and how much I liked this novel. I didn’t expect to enjoy it because I hated her short story The Lottery, and this slender novel is not my usual style at all. It’s bizarre, macabre, unsettling, disturbing – and utterly compelling. I was totally gripped from the opening paragraph to the last word. I just couldn’t put it down.

As I said in my previous post, Jackson writes like a dream, but the tale she tells has a nightmarish quality. Gothic horror doesn’t even begin to describe it and it’s impossible to categorise or find a comparable author. Angela Carter, Barbara Comyns, and Alice Thomas Ellis have all written strange, unconventional novels with a dark edge, and some of the short stories penned by Margaret Atwood, Sara Maitland and Sylvia Townsend Warner are very odd indeed, but I’m not sure any of them quite match Jackson when it comes to weirdly wonderful.

It’s well nigh impossible to write about We Have Always Lived in the Castle without giving the plot away, but it’s become something of a cult classic, and elements of the story seems to be so well known that perhaps spoilers don’t matter. If you don’t want to know what happens then stop reading!


Basically the narrator, Merricat (Mary Katherine Blackwood), and her sister Constance live with their Uncle Julian in a run-down family mansion. Six years ago the girls’ mother, father, aunt and brother all died when someone put arsenic in the sugar bowl. Uncle Julian survived, with his mind and body irreparably damaged; Merricat escaped poisoning because she had been sent to her room for a misdemeanour, and Constance never took sugar. However, she prepared the meal and washed the sugar bowl before the police arrived – there was a spider in it, she claimed. She is tried for murder and acquitted, though local people remain convinced of her guilt. It’s obvious that bad feeling between the Blackwoods and the villagers goes back a long away – well before the murders, but it’s never explained. Once a week Merricat runs the gauntlet of hostile, staring, jeering villagers to change library books and buy groceries, because her sister never ventures beyond the confines of house and garden.

Everything changes when Cousin Charles arrives, seeking the fortune he believes Mr Blackwood has left. He beguiles Constance – and Merricat, excluded from her sister’s new relationship, seeks a way to banish him and restore their usual way of life, but things don’t go according to plan. She sets fire to Charles’ bedroom in the hopes that leave, but the flames spread – and the fire brigade, having extinguished the blaze join the vrowd of villagers in systematically smashing the Blackwood home and possessions to piece. It’s every bit as terifying as the mob that stones a woman to death in The Lottery.

61UJ59drydL._SX331_BO1,204,203,200_The girls clad themselves in table cloths and drapes (their clothes have been destroyed), and barricade themselves in the ruined house, while the villagers, ashamed of their actions, take to leaving gifts of food on the doorstep.

The past unfolds slowly, there is a feeling of unease from the outset, and the tension just keeps on rising, highlighted bythe juxtaposition of everyday normality with the weird. It’s told from Merricat’s perspective, her internal musings, which are frequently very unpleasant, but always entertaining, and it soon becomes apparent that she is not merely a little odd, but deeply, deeply disturbed, and that it is she, not Constance, who is the poisoner. Yet there are times when I wondered if the sisters were complicit in the murders, and it is strange that Constance tells the police her family deserved to die.

Merricat’s life is dominated by her protective charms and rituals – words that she mustn’t say, a buried doll, a book nailed to a tree – that go hand in had with her self-imposed rules on what she can and can’t do. It’s like some kind of instinctive sympathetic magic, but I think there’s more than that; it’s like some obsessive behavioural pattern taken to extremes.

220px-WeHaveAlwaysLivedInTheCastleThis all sounds very dark and chilling, and it is, but We Have Always Lived in the Castle also has one of the funniest scenes Ihave ever read in any novel, when an old friend of the sister’s dead mother comes to tea, accompanided by ‘little Mrs Wright’ whose avid curiosity about the murders overcomes her good manners – she can’t bring erself to drink tea or eat any of Constance’s cakes and sandwiches, but she takes a ghoulisjh interest in the details of the murder. And Uncle Julian rises to the occasion magnificently. He is a showman, displayimg his exhibits – the house, its inhabitants and their possessions, and he does it with outrageous charm, old-fashioned courtesy, and a wry sense of humour.

“Would you like to view the dining room?” he asked. “The fatal board? I did not give evidence at the trial, you understand; my health was not equal, then or now, to the rude questions of strangers.”

“Madam.” Uncle Julian contrived a bow fron his wheel chair, and Mrs Wright hurried to reach the door and open it for him. “Directly across the hall,” Uncle Julian said, and she followed. “I admire a decently curious woman, madam; I could see at ince that you were devoured with a passion to view the scene of the tragedy; it happened in this very room, and we still have our dinner in here every night.”

He continues with great relish:

“The sugar bowl on the sideboard, the heavy silver sugar bowl. It is a family heirloom; my brother prized it highly. You will be wondering about that sugar bowl, I imagine. Is it still in use? you are wondering; has it been cleaned you may very well ask; was it thoroughly washed I can reassure you at once. My niece Constance washed it before the doctor or police had come.”

28251249Amidst the horror and oddities everyday concerns loom large. Gardening, cooking, clothes are all important, as are good manners – at the end, despite everything that has happened, when villagers leave food Constance is concerned about what people would think of them if they sent the dish and cloth wrapping back dirty.

And nothing is ever explained. When terrible things happen, in fiction, as in life, we like to know why. We look for reasons, justifications, attributions of blame, anything that will make it easier to accept and understand. But Jackson offers no clues. We never know why the family were murdered ( in the afterword Joyce Carol Oates suggests Merricat is suffering from paranoid schizophrenia) or what has caused bad feeling between the Blackwoods and the villagers, but you can see how fear, rumour and suspicion feed prejudice in small town America.

The Wedding Group

The cover of this old hardback is much nicer than the modern paperback.

Oops! I had a brainstorm when I mentioned the 1968 Club and forgot to say that I’d also read The Wedding Group, by Elizabeth Taylor, so I’m writing about it now, and will try to squeeze Muriel Spark in before the week ends. Taylor’s writing, like many of her characters, tends to be understated, restrained and gentle. But there’s nothing cosy or comforting about her work; no-one dissects the middle classes quite like her, and she can be every bit as cruel and acerbic as Muriel Spark or Beryl Bainbridge, with a dark edge that is not always apparent at first reading. The Wedding Group isn’t generally regarded as one of her best novels, but I loved it. Like Bainbridge’s  Another Part of the Wood, the storyline is slender, and it’s the interplay of emotions between the characters which is important. Again, the characters aren’t necessarily likable, but Taylor writes with a warmth and understanding that Bainbridge lacks. 

Quayne is an island of self-sufficiency in a consumer world. It’s a cloistered, quasi-Catholic community created by artist Harry Bretton, commonly known as the Master. He had a period of notoriety when he first produced his paintings of religious scenes peopled by those in his inner circle. Over the years his fame has faded, but he continues to dominate his family, friends and acolytes. He wears a smock, sandals and shepherd’s cloak, talks about humility in art, and humility in life, thinks feminism is an ‘ungainly aberration’, and has opinions on everything. He has established the ‘good life’, with home-grown vegetables, home-baked bread (in vast quantities) and hand-woven clothes. Taylor tells us:

“Here, at Quayne, everything was all of a piece, everyone, everything, fitted into the Master’s scheme; for Harry  Bretton had views on every aspect of life, and had, with what seemed to be the greatest of luck, found that all formed part of the whole vision, Here, there was nothing he thought of as spurious, nothing meretricious, nothing counterfeit. All was wholesome, necessary, simple, therefore good and beautiful, too.”

St Francis and the Birds 1935 by Sir Stanley Spencer 1891-1959
Apparently Harry is based on Stanley Spencer or Eric Gill (or both).  Spencer is mentioned in the novel, so I’ve included his painting of St Francis and the birds because I like it, and I imagine Harry looking a little like this in his smock and sandals.

But there is one dissenter among his band of followers: as he himself observes, Cressida, his 18-year-old granddaughter, no longer sings in tune with the family. It’s the swinging sixties, and Cressy doesn’t want to wear home-made sack-like dresses and eat beans (and who can blame her). “She dreamed of Wimpy Bars and a young man with a sports car, of cheap and fashionable clothes that would fall apart before she tired of them,” says Taylor. Cressy leaves home, and gets a job in an antique shop where she lives in a room in the attic.

She drifts into marriage with journalist David (who she first met when he wrote a feature on life at Quayne), they move into a damp, cold dilapidated cottage, and produce a baby son. David is smitten by Cressy’s other-worldly charms, her gallantry in starting a new life, and her joy and enthusiasm embracing her new world – she loves popular culture, television, junk food and trashy, throw-away possessions. However, her isolated upbringing means she is an innocent cast adrift in an environment she doesn’t understand, and married life is not what she expects. She’s no good at cooking or housework, is nervous of the baby (who cries constantly and is sick a lot), and is lonely, for David commutes to London every day and often stays overnight, allegedly with a photographer friend because it’s so late he can’t get home, but in reality visiting Nell, his former girlfriend who is now his mistress. And his mother Midge is a force to be reckoned with, although she masks her true intentions under a guise of helpfulness.

Midge is another lonely woman. She is desperately, desperately lonely since her husband walked out and her elder sons moved away. Now she lives her life for and through David, and has re-invented herself to become the perfect housewife and companion, caring for him so well that, hopefully, he will never leave. She is devastated by his marriage, but lays her plans carefully. On the face of it she is kind and supportive, but there’s a brilliant moment when Taylor describes how Midge stops her car to give Cressy a lift: “Oh, you are the most thoughtful woman I ever knew,” Cressy said, getting in. Indeed, Midge did have a great number of thoughts. Few could have more.” 

Midge’s help highlights the difference between her own well-ordered home and the chaos at the cottage, and the more she does the less able Cressy becomes. Her moment of of rebellion is diminished as Midge becomes more powerful, and she loses herself, unable to fight back because she doesn’t even realise that a war of wills is under way. And just as the young couple are thinking of fulfilling their dream and escaping to London there is a mysterious burglary… there are no fingerprints or other evidence… but Midge’s diamond earrings have been stolen… so David and Cressy cannot leave her…

Despite this crisis the novel ends on an upbeat note, and one can only hope that David and Cressy finally find happiness and make a life for themselves, though neither of them is very good at looking after themselves, let alone others.

Novelist Elizabeth Taylor.

There’s a host of other characters brought to life with deftness and humour. People speak in clichés which convey new, hidden meanings, and Taylor is a master of elusion, obscuring certain facts, just as people do in real life, but somehow this lack of precision serves to make things clearer. What she doesn’t say is as important was what she does, and she tells us exactly what we need to know, no more, and no less, and in so doing rapidly establishes personality. For example, there’s Mrs Brindle, the gossipy charwoman who works for Quayne and Midge, and can’t help overhearing what she shouldn’t know and having heard can’t forget!

And there’s the beautiful, sophisticated brother and sister who run the antique shop and are strangely close. One wonders what is going on there, nut nothing explicit is ever revealed, and we’re left to draw our own conclusions.

Then there is David’s father, old before his time, with a quaint, old-fashioned turn of phrase. Just like Midge (who he is ‘keeping in gin’) he seems to have created a version of himself that may or may not be real (which of us ever knows who a person truly is).and this may account for the fact that he looks and sounds like an actor playing part – even his bald head looks like a wig. David’s conversations with his father are very funny, but there are some heart-stoppingly sad moments.

And, of course, there is the community at Quayne, which finds itself under threat as new houses invade the surrounding woodland, and Cousin Pet falls prey to an older man and gives birth, much to Harry’s delight since he needs a model for his Madonna and Child! Apart from Harry, who dominates the group, the most memorable character is their tame priest Father Daughtry, who likes ‘fillums’ and alcohol. Mostly the family and their hangers-on are meek, mild, and very quiet – years of living with Harry have ground them into submission, though you can see that Cressy’s father must once have been more lively than he is now. And there’s a poignant moment when she realises that if she had been a better daughter then unemotional Rose might have been a better mother.

The novel is very much about loneliness, and people’s response to it, and the way they cope – they may live together, and there are ties that bind them to others, but somehow they still lead solitary lives and never form trusting, sharing relationships.

PS: You can see what everyone else at the 1968 Club has been reading by clicking here.


Another Part of the Wood


Right. It’s 1968 so I can party along with everyone else at the ‘club’ organised by Simon over at Stuck in a Book, and Karen at Kaggsy’s Bookish Ramblings. The dedicated duo have been working their way through the decades, celebrating books issued in 1924, 1938, 1947 and 1951, and for each of those years there are novels I know and love – but I have failed to join in because Life, The Universe and Everything got in the way!

This time around I was determined to make an effort, but when I looked at the list my heart sank because I’ve read virtually none of the fiction titles, with the exception of Tigers are Better Looking, a collection of short stories by Jean Rhys (which I mentioned here), and Christa Wolf’s wonderful novel The Quest for Christa T, which I planned to re-read, to refresh my memory But, alas, I but couldn’t find it, so I put Plan B into operation and bought Muriel Spark’s The Public Image and Another Part of the Wood by Beryl Bainbridge, and read them last week, while I was cat and rabbit sitting for my elder daughter.

Both authors are known for their sharp wit, their ability to put uncomfortable relationships under the microscope, and their dark humour. And Another Part of the Wood is very dark indeed. Here we have a disparate group of people staying in ramshackle huts in an isolated Welsh wood where facilities are pretty basic. And in this wild setting the thin veneer of civilisation peels away from the enclosed group and human failings are exposed – spite, cruelty, selfishness, carelessness, neglect, self-delusion…

Another part of the wood

They are damaged people whose behaviour damages others, and none of them is likable, but for once this doesn’t matter; it’s the interplay between the characters that’s important, and the tension this creates, and it means there are no heroes or villains, just people. From the outset there’s a sense of impending doom and disaster as normal life is thrown into chaos, but there’s no redemption or resolution as the story makes its way to a shocking – and very abrupt – end.

As a kind of suburban satire it’s sometimes compared to Mike Leigh’s black comedy Abigail’s Party, but I think it’s more like Nuts in May, though maybe the setting which brought that to mind. In Bainbridge’s tale the holiday-makers are staying at Nant MacFarley Camp, so named by the owner’s son George MacFarley. Local resident Willie , who looks after the ‘estate’ when the family are absent, calls it the Glen, while George’s mother refers to it as The Family Resting Ground (because it’s a ‘haven to which they could retreat when the demands of city life became overwhelming). And his friend Balfour thinks of it as the Labour Camp, because there’s so much work to do.

George is a giant of a man who had a solitary childhood and is now a solitary man who seldom speaks and is obsessed with the Holocaust. He’s also strangely concerned for the welfare of Balfour, who is a tool turner in a factory (working with a machine, not with his hands) but spends much of his spare time helping George and running a boys’ club which provides lads with visits to the camp. Poor Balfour doesn’t have a lot going for him: he’s got no self-confidence, is shy, spotty, stutters, and suffers from some unspecified illness which causes him to have funny turns.

Also staying at the camp are George’s friend Joseph, with his young son Roland, his girl-friend Dottie, and Kidney, a grossly overweight youth who obviously has what we would now call learning difficulties. The exact nature of his condition is never explained. All we know is that he takes three tablets to sedate him, and that Joseph maintains there is nothing wrong with him and all he needs is diet and exercise – but, quickly loses interest in his protégé. And he shows an equal lack of interest in Dottie or his son – he doesn’t even know if the boy is 7 or 8. Poor Roland has to sleep in the barn and is generally left to his own devices.

Last to arrive are Lionel and his wife May, one of the most ill-matched couples I’ve ever encountered. Lionel’s obsession is the war, which he appears to have enjoyed (despite being shot in the buttock), and he’s very possessive and protective of his wife, who he always calls ‘Sweetheart’ – but he doesn’t make love to her. Instead he reads her stories… A vicious, spiteful bottle blonde, she is older than she would care to admit, thinks her husband is a fool – and has no qualms about telling him so.  She hates everything about Lionel, especially his small moustache, his bald head, his big belly, and the fact that he never calls her by her name: yet at the same time he makes her feel safe and protected.

You wonder how of these people ever came to be together, because none of them are able to connect with others. They are all self-obsessed, selfish and unreliable in the way they view themselves and others. Lionel, for example, ‘had no notion of himself before 1939’ and ‘couldn’t be sure that his memories were exact’.

Thinking about the others, Balfour, who has odd moment s of clear-sightedness, says: “They didn’t really feel they belonged to anyone any more.” But he is just isolated and emotionally stunted, and when tragedy strikes he feels nothing, and knows he will only be able to respond when he sees his mother’s reaction to the event.

Beryl Baainbridge

Another part of the wood was Bainbridge’s second novel but already her style was established. In her 1981 revision she cut her pared back writing even further, which may account for the sense of dislocation and alienation. It’s sly, funny, dark and tragic, and haven’t done it justice, but I’ll definitely read it again.

PS: You can see what everyone else has been reading by clicking here.

Radio, Comedy and Cold Comfort!

md13044312300 (2)Talking of marathons (Persephone in the last post), Radio 4 Extra has been re-running the BBC’s 1981 edition of Stella Gibbons Cold Comfort Farm, and the four one-hour episodes are still available – you can catch them here, but you need to be quick, because there’s just one day left to hear the first episode, although the others are available for a little longer (but not much).

I like to save up radio episodes and listen to the entire production in one fell swoop if I can or, failing that, over two or three consecutive days (I don’t like waiting to hear what happens). Anyway, Gibbons’ novel is one of the funniest I’ve ever read, and this dramatisation really captures the tone of the book, and I enjoyed it immensely, all the more so as I recently read Mary Webb’s The Golden Arrow and, as I’m sure everyone knows, CCF is a parody of Webb’s melodramatic works of rural mysticism.


The drama is produced by Elizabeth Proud, who also puts in a creditable performance as the author herself and, thankfully, it follows the novel fairly closely (with the addition of a kind of introduction by the author to explain the connection with Mary Webb). Orphaned Flora Poste, possessor of £100 a year and ‘every art and grace save that of earning her own living’, takes herself off to her peculiar Starkadder relatives at run-down Cold Comfort Farm. There, amidst the dirt and grime she discovers hidden mysteries. What is the wrong done to her father by sorrowful Aunt Judith’s man?  And what was the ‘something nasty’ that Great Aunt Ada Doom saw in the woodshed long, long ago? Alas, we never learn the answers…


And she gets to know her relatives, who are perfectly portrayed in this radio adaptation. Farmer Amos is a sanctimonious religious fanatic who preaches about sin and damnation, and leads his congregation in ‘the quivering’. Pin-up Seth hates farming and is obsessed by the ‘talkies’, while Elfine, who is obsessed with the son of a wealthy landowner, wears home-spun clothes, writes poetry and wanders the fields communing with nature. And there is Urk, who is obsessed with Elfine (and water voles). And let’s not forget the hired girl Meriam, daughter of Mrs Beetle the cleaner, and mother of four children because she cannot help herself when the sukebind is in bloom… They all sound exactly as I imagined they would, and the over-the-top country speech (Gibbons mocked the efforts of novelists who wrote phonetically in an effort to reproduce dialects) worked well against Flora’s cut-glass accents.


Flora, a thoroughly modern young lady (by the standards of 1932 when the novel was published), likes everything to be neat, clean, tidy and well organised, So she decides to reform her cousins, do away with the family’s sorrows and curses, and banish mud, grime and ignorance. Nature, as she observes, is all very well in her place but she must not be allowed to make things untidy…

For all her dainty ways Flora brooks no opposition to her plans, and brings order out of chaos, setting various Starkadders on exactly the right path in life. Even Great Aunt Ada Doom, who rules the farm with a rod of iron and refuses to let anyone leave (because ‘there’s always been Starkadders at Cold Comfort’) succumbs to her charms.


Listening to the radio version I was surprised at how well it brought out certain aspects of the book – the accents, the language, and all the made-up words, which are one of the delights of the book. And how crisp and polite Flora is, maintaining the decorum and conversation of the society she is used to, treating the Starkadders like children who need to be educated and shown a better way of life – she reminded me of those wonderful Joyce Grenfell ‘nursery’ monologues! I thought the whole cast were brilliant, especially Patricia Gallimore as Flora Poste, the inimitable Miriam Margoleys as Mrs Beetle, and Fabia Drake as Aunt Ada Doom.

I would find my copy of the book… but I’m staying at my elder daughter’s… so I’ll have to wait for a re-read until I get home.

In Which I Find the Virago Apple Isn’t Always a Mark of Excellence!

Hannie Richards
The Virago edition of Hilary Bailey’s Hannie Richards: The Intrepid Adventures of a Restless Housewife, (published in 1985), features a cover with an illustration by Sue Hillwood Harris.

The blurb on the back of Hilary Bailey’s Hannie Richards or The Intrepid Adventures of a Restless Wife describes it as a ‘pastiche’ of John Buchan, and I suppose that’s right to some extent, because the connection is clearly visible in our heroine’s name – Hannie Richards/Richard Hannay. And the author subverts the male world of adventure by having a female protagonist who is less interested in righting wrongs than in making money.

Hannie, tall, slender, red-haired, good looking, is married to a gentleman farmer and appears to be the perfect wife and mother, as well having a career which takes her all over the world. But she is leading a double life, for she is really a highly sought after international smuggler, commanding extremely high fees for her services. She’s cool-headed, courageous, well organised – and says her success is down to the fact that people don’t look at women. But she’s completely amoral, with no scruples about the jobs she undertakes. She works for the money, to fund a nice lifestyle, and to keep the farm going, her mother in a nursing home, and her daughters at an expensive school.

She relates her adventures to fellow members of the Hope Club, a women’s version of the ‘grander gentlemen’s clubs of Mayfair or Belgravia’. Her successes include finding the evidence for a poor, black family to prove their ownership of a Caribbean island, and rescuing a strange child from war-torn Chad on a secret mission for the Vatican. There is lots of danger, and lots of action – chases, shootings, killings, a volcano…

Despite her own extra-marital exploits (which, apparently, mean nothing), she is devastated to discover her husband has embarked on an affair with their neighbour. So she plans one last job to earn enough money for a new life with her twin daughters, and travels to the Bolivian jungle to acquire a rare plant for a dying millionaire who believes it will cure his cancer. But her luck is running out. She finds herself involved with some particularly vicious villains (there’s a nasty scene where she is raped and beaten which, quite frankly, I thought was unnecessary and didn’t add anything to the story), and ends up in a Brazilian jail because someone puts drugs in her luggage.

However, all ends well because her friends at the Hope Club, worried by her disappearance, seek help from a former arms dealer, who turns out to be the mysterious stranger who has aided Hannie the past. He rescues and, naturally, they fall in love and live happily ever after (probably). Oh, and she finally develops a social conscience.


This was one of those books that sounded much more enticing than it turned out to be. It just goes to show that the lovely Virago apple is not always a mark of excellence – I didn’t hat this (it was interesting), but I wouldn’t read this again, and I’m not sure I want to read anything else by Hilary Bailey. Published in 1985, it’s very much of its time, and very much a feminist novel, though there’s nothing wrong with that – my bookshelves are packed with feminist novels that I love. I just didn’t love this one. To start with I thought perhaps it was meant to be a comedy, because the adventures were so ludicrous, but Bailey obviously has a serious message to make, not just about women’s subservient position, but about poor and oppressed people everywhere. And that’s part of the problem I think, because she takes a pop at so many institutions and attitudes – big business, organised religion, patriarchal society – which dilutes what she’s trying to say. And she’s very heavy-handed in the way she says it.

And I didn’t like Hannie or any of the other characters. None of them came to life, and there was a curious lack of emotion, so I never felt I knew what made Hannie tick, although we do learn that she started smuggling when she evaded quarantine laws by bringing a cat back from France for friends of a friend, and she says she didn’t want to be a woman waiting for her husband to come home, hanging about, trying to make ends meet (though her idea of making ends meet is somewhat different to mine). So there you are. Amazing what bored housewives can do when they put their mind to it!

Somewhere in this novel is the germ of an idea about women trying to make it in a man’s world, to support themselves and their families through their own efforts, and to live life on their own terms, whatever the cost. But as far as I’m concerned, it didn’t quite come off.

Hilary Bailey
Author Hilary Bailey, who died earlier this year.. (Pic courtesy of The Guardian)